The U.S. Department of Homeland Security is re-examining a longtime policy to let immigrant spouses remain here when their abusive U.S. citizen or permanent-resident spouses refuse to help them obtain legal status.Ana Bertha Arellano, who runs her own Sacramento restaurant and cleans offices all night as a janitor, fears a change in that policy would destroy the safe life she's been struggling to build for herself and her children.
Without that protection, Arellano could end up deported by the same U.S. officials who agreed to shelter her from abuse six years ago and legally stay here on a special provisional visa.
"I have my own health insurance. I don't take any aid for anything. I don't want anything else but a chance to have some stability for my family," said Arellano, 37, one of the thousands of immigrants, many mothers of U.S.-born children, who could be affected if the policy shifts.
Arellano's story, like many, begins with marriage to a husband she loved and with whom she had two children, both born here. But her husband, a permanent resident of the United States, never filed papers to sponsor her for permanent residency, she said.
After they were married, she said he told her to cross the border from Mexico illegally in 1997, saying he would submit their application once she got here.
Instead, she said, he used her undocumented status to prevent her from complaining about his subsequent beatings and verbal taunts.
Arellano, who agreed to tell her story publicly, thought she had no alternatives until she found a lawyer who helped her apply in 2001 for a temporary Violence Against Women Act visa.
With affidavits and other evidence, she proved to an immigration official that her husband had abused her and failed to sponsor her for a green card, and that her marriage had been in good faith and she was of good moral character.
She was granted a Violence Against Women Act visa and a work permit so she could support herself and her children by working legally. She started her own business and got health insurance through her janitor job, and based on that success used her temporary visa to petition, without her husband, for permanent residency - a green card.
When Arellano applied six months ago, she felt optimistic. With a green card, she would be able to travel freely and seek U.S. citizenship. With the temporary Violence Against Women Act visa, she can't travel to see her mother back in Mexico, she can't apply for citizenship, and the visa, she feared, could be revoked at any time.
Today, Arellano's fear is approaching panic. With the new policy pending, her green-card request has been put on hold at the Sacramento office of Citizenship and Immigration Services, a branch of Homeland Security.
Although the agency declined to reveal details, it is considering whether to reject green-card petitions for immigrant abuse survivors if they entered the United States in the past illegally, according to Sharon Rummery, San Francisco-based spokeswoman for Citizenship Services.
Immigration-rights advocates suspect the policy is under consideration to bring it into line with other immigration laws, which have been tightened since the mid-1990s and make it harder for someone to obtain a green card if they ever entered the United States illegally.
But victims of domestic abuse, whose spouses deliberately refused to sponsor them for legal status, continued to fall into a special group - at least until now.
"In this climate, everything is being interpreted really restrictively," said Sacramento immigration attorney Marien Sorensen, referring to the mounting public pressure to crack down on illegal immigrants.
Sorensen has four clients, including Arellano, whose bids to move up from Violence Against Women Act visas to green cards are on hold. She has represented dozens of immigrants in the past who have made this transition to green cards with ease.
Since 1994, more than 30,670 immigrants married to U.S. spouses have been granted Violence Against Women Act visas. Across the country, lawyers and others representing these immigrants are reporting that green-card bids are in limbo, said Ellen Kemp, coordinator of the National Lawyers Guild's Immigration Project in Boston.
"It's beyond me why someone would try to prevent full independence and full integration into society of domestic abuse survivors," Kemp said.
Officials already have rejected their green-card bids in some cities, she added.
In the San Jose office of Citizenship Services, a woman too afraid to give her name said she was rejected last summer, has appealed the decision and is terrified that if her appeal fails, she will be ordered to leave the country.
The abuse this woman suffered was so bad, said her attorney, Mary Dutcher, that her U.S. citizen husband is incarcerated.
Beth Hassett, executive director of Women Escaping a Violent Environment, which counsels battered women in Sacramento County, predicted that a hard-line policy will cause immigrant women to remain in violent relationships if coming forward leaves them vulnerable to deportation.
She said counselors often hear of abusive husbands threatening immigrant wives by saying they'll turn them over to immigration authorities. "They lie about whether they've applied for them to get green cards, so the women don't even know what their status is," she said.
"In this area, with so many immigrants, a new policy like this could have a big impact," she said.
The possibility that Citizenship Services could start ordering abused immigrants out of the country also has angered some key figures in Congress.
One of them, Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-San Jose, chairs a House subcommittee on immigration and border security.
Congress set the policy to provide Violence Against Women Act visas in 1994 and allow abused immigrants to seek green cards, Lofgren said, and Citizenship Services doesn't have the right to re-interpret that policy.
"They're the bureaucrats, not the lawmakers," she said.
If Homeland Security is trying to get tough on illegal immigrants, she said, this isn't the way to do it.
"We're against illegal immigration," she said, referring to Congress. "But we're against domestic abuse and murder, too."
Lofgren and Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., both wrote to Citizenship Services, warning that if immigrant spouses and their children are forced to leave the United States, they would no longer be protected by U.S. court restraining orders against their violent spouses.
Lyn Kirkconnell, a Catholic Charities legal aid worker in Stockton, said two of her clients' green-card bids are on hold. She has represented women from Asia, the Middle East, Russia, Mexico, Australia and Great Britain.
"They can't go back to where they could be easily victimized by their abusers," she said. "We need clarification on this."
© 2007 The Sacramento Bee